As the US Food and Drug Administration takes steps to ban them, menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars might soon become a thing of the past. This action is being taken to try to prevent addiction and save lives, but why flavored tobacco, specifically menthol? The simple answer is that it’s much more addictive than non-flavored tobacco, but the issue goes much deeper.
Easy to start
The evidence is becoming irrefutable as more and more studies release their findings; compared to unflavored tobacco, it’s easier to get addicted to menthol cigarettes and harder to quit them. Derived from peppermint, when it’s added to tobacco, menthol relieves some of the harshness of the smoke. The lung irritation caused by smoking is often enough to deter a new user but without this, the risks of becoming addicted drastically increase.
Hard to quit
The quit rate of menthol smokers is far lower than those who smoke non-flavored tobacco because biologically, it’s harder. Nicotine is addictive on its own but when it’s combined with menthol, it creates more activity in the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. According to a study from 2017, “menthol plus nicotine produces greater reward-related behavior than nicotine alone”.
Summary. Simplified circuit diagram showing GABAergic neurons (blue) projecting to VTA DA neurons (purple). Arrows indicate acute applications of nicotine and its effect on firing frequency.
Image Credit: Neuropsychopharmacology. 2017 Nov; 42(12): 2285–2291.
Menthol – Targeting Black Communities
Since the 1950s, menthol cigarettes have been disproportionately marketed to the black community and for decades, it’s been killing them. This was done strategically by the tobacco companies:
- At a time when most advertising depicted black people in a negative light, menthol cigarette ads showed wealthy, happy, and attractive people.
- Community events, programs, and organizations were commonly sponsored by tobacco companies.
- In Black communities, Thirty-eight percent of retailers displayed at least one menthol advertisement on the store exterior, and 69% advertised price promotions.
- Price promotions for menthol cigarettes were more common in Black neighborhoods.
According to the CDC, “Tobacco use is a major contributor to the three leading causes of death among African Americans—heart disease, cancer, and stroke.“ The ban is meant to encourage people to quit and protect public health. The NAACP was pleased to hear the announcement and released a statement. NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson had this to say; “The ban by the FDA is long overdue to protect the health of African Americans and to reduce the deleterious impact of menthol smoking and tobacco use overall on America’s health.”
Banning Menthol – Benefit or Bad Move
Studies have shown that banning flavored tobacco, especially menthol would have significant public benefit, however, not all are convinced. Without a doubt, banning menthol can prevent the loss of life but will it provide another reason to criminalize the Black community? According to an FDA press release, “Enforcement of any ban on menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars will only address manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, and retailers. The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product.” While this ban is meant to target retailers, there are valid concerns that it will result in more problems with police.
Will prohibition work this time?
Prohibition has never really worked; they tried it with alcohol and cannabis; now, they want to try it with menthol cigarettes. Not only does this seem like a waste of time and tax dollars, banning flavored tobacco will likely lead to an underground market and more police brutality. When only thirty percent of white smokers use menthol compared to eighty-five percent of the Black community, it is pretty clear to see who this ban will impact.
What is the solution?
The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed the ban and written an open letter to the FDA. In it, they make the point that a ban would likely cause negative interactions with law enforcement and instead propose a harm reduction approach.
If implemented, it’s likely that tobacco companies will sue and stall the ban. Currently, The FDA must propose a rule which is likely to take a year. After that, there would be a period for public input and litigation. At the earliest, the ban could come into effect in 2024.
Feature Image Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Bet_Noire